New state education requirements raise questions for Horry County Schools

Gov. Nikki Haley has signed the Read to Succeed Act, the latest in a string of educational changes for South Carolina, but all the new requirements have left educators with a long list of questions and very few answers.

“We’ll be looking to [the S.C. Department of Education] for guidance, support and interpretation, but it all means a lot of work for districts,” said Cindy Ambrose, chief academic officer for Horry County Schools. “It has been a little overwhelming. I don’t remember another year with this much change.”

The legislature moved this spring to change the Common Core State Standards and withdraw from the assessment consortium tied to the standards. Exit exams were eliminated as a requirement for a high school diploma, in addition to passage of the governor’s K-12 Education Reform Initiative, and the state Board of Education last week approved a new performance-based system for teachers and principals.

Ambrose attended state update sessions in Columbia Wednesday and Thursday, and said there are a lot of uncertainties and unknowns. She said districts will have to wait on answers from the state Department of Education, but right now, the ink is just drying on the legislation.

Read to Succeed is one part of Haley’s new plan and places an emphasis on literacy. Her reform initiative also changes the state model for funding education and invests in educational technology, which is a mixed bag for Horry County, school officials say.

The governor called her new funding formula “fairer and simpler,” and it was designed to put money into poor districts. Horry County has its share of poverty, with about 60 percent of students qualifying for subsidized meals, but it is considered to be a wealthy district because of its beach real estate, said John Gardner, HCS chief financial officer.

Gardner said the new formula does not favor the district and would have cost it about $345,000 if there had been no growth. The district averaged almost 900 new students this past year, however, and expects a similar increase for the fall.

The new plan moves money from the Education Improvement Act to the general fund to pay for new add-on weightings for children with low English proficiency and those who are eligible for subsidized meals, gifted and at risk. The EIA funds required programs, such as those for gifted students, and under the new plan, gifted programs move from being underfunded to having no funding at all.

Gardner said he expects more monies that cover specific allocations to shift to the general fund in the future — which would be a loss for Horry County — but he liked the way the governor handled the new technology plan.

“The money is for infrastructure and equipment, and it was divided on a per-pupil basis,” Gardner said. “We got $1.2 million, and it gives us the flexibility to help with the digital content for [the district’s personalized digital learning initiative].”

Officials do have questions and concerns with the governor’s new reading initiative, which affects students and teachers, adds more work for administrators and could affect programs the district already has in place.

“It’s a huge piece of legislation that has far-reaching effects,” said HCS Superintendent Cindy Elsberry. “There are lots of requirements, and just about every sentence [in the legislation] has something new we have to monitor.”

The superintendent said she does not support a big part of the governor’s plan, which is to hold back students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade. Haley said children who do not meet reading proficiency by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time than students who meet the standard.

“That is just horrendous to me,” said Elsberry, who favors interventions and small-group instruction to help those students keep up with their peers. Elsberry said research shows that a child who is retained twice has a 100 percent chance of dropping out and, by the third year, is as far behind as they were before.

Wendy McKewen, whose children attend school in the Conway attendance area, said holding back a child should be a last resort, and only if the child is assured of getting the help they need. She said a friend of hers was shocked recently when told their child needed to be held back, even though any problems the child had was minimized in conversations during the year.

“That isn’t very fair,” McKewen said. “I think there’s a responsibility through the whole year to get a child where they need to be, whether it’s through tutoring, working at home, getting special attention or some one-on-one time spent. [Retaining them] should be the last option.”

Vern Black, however, a reader who wrote on The Sun News’ Facebook page, said the governor’s plan seems to make sense.

“Seems cut and dry to me — If the kid isn’t performing at the required level, hold them back until they are,” Black said. “We’re talking about a child’s education and future here, not some silly game.”

The governor’s initiative also includes a newly created Read to Succeed Office and a new literacy plan, which could supplant the district’s model. Literacy has been Elsberry’s focus since she joined the district six years ago, and she said the district already has a detailed literacy model for K-12, which she hopes can be submitted to the state and approved for continued use.

“I don’t want somebody in Columbia telling us how to teach reading,” Elsberry said. “I was part of the Alabama Reading Initiative, and I believe in statewide initiatives, but I’ve found in South Carolina that guidelines are usually so restrictive that there is no room for local decisions.”

The district already complies with some aspects of the initiative, such as the 4-year-old kindergarten program Haley wants to expand. Horry County has a full-day, 4-year-old program that serves 1,120 children and already teaches cursive writing, which also is in the plan.

To further improve reading in the state, the plan does provide funding — at 50 percent and 100 percent — for reading coaches at elementary schools, although whether the district can capitalize on that money is still up in the air.

The district added 40 reading interventionists in 2011 in an effort to improve literacy at all district schools, and it originally was thought the funds could offset those salaries. The district will have to apply for those funds, however, and Elsberry said the qualifications for those positions are set at such a high level as to make filling them difficult. The hope is that the requirements will loosen, she said.

Most elementary school teachers and all teachers at the middle and high school levels — regardless of their experience — also will feel the effects of the reforms. They will be required to get extra training at their own expense, paying for coursework at a college or university, Elsberry said, instead of taking professional development classes through the district.

“There are so many unanswered questions, and I don’t know if we can fight [some of the requirements],” she said. “I hope that leeway will be given.”